Thursday, December 1, 2011

John 8:58 - Word Order and Verb Tenses, Part One

εἶπεν αὐτοῖς Ἰησοῦς· ἀμὴν ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι ἐγὼ εἰμί." - John 8:58

"'I tell you the truth,' Jesus answered, 'before Abraham was born, I am!'" - John 8:58, NIV and most others.

John 8:58 is one of the favorite scriptures that Trinitarians try to use to prove that Jesus is God. They say that Jesus is claiming to be the great "I Am," which is supposedly the name God applied to himself in Exodus 3:14. This post is not an in-depth discussion of John 8:58. It will not delve that deeply into Koine Greek syntax, nor attempt to show that the connection between John 8:58 and Exodus 3:14 is arbitrary. What this post attempts to do, as my post on John 1:1 similarly did, is show that the fundamental differences between how Koine Greek and English works in regards to John 8:58 is largely to blame for the misunderstanding of this verse. Hopefully it will be written in such a way that the average layperson can understand the concepts involved. This way, the layperson should be able to handle pro-Trinitarian arguments given by those quite knowledgeable in Greek.

There are two differences in particular between Koine Greek and English that affects our understanding of John 8:58 -

1) Greek and English often use different word order in a sentence.

2) There is not a one-to-one correspondence between Greek and English verb tenses.

Word Order Differences between English and Greek

First let us take a closer look at the phrase in question, and break it up into its parts. Below is the Greek text, its transliteration, and its interlinear translation into English. Next are two popular renderings: the New International Version, which represents the standard English translation of the verse, and the New World Translation, which is controversial and considered by many to be an inaccurate translation.

πρὶν Ἀβραὰμ γενέσθαι | ἐγὼ εἰμί - Greek text
prin Abraam genesthai | ego eimi - Transliteration
before Abraham came-to-be | I am - Interlinear translation
"Before Abraham was born, I am!" - NIV
"Before Abraham came into existence, I have been." - NWT

To help separate the parts and to aid those unfamiliar with Greek to see which English words goes with the corresponding Greek words, the subjects of the verses discussed in this post will be in blue, the verbs will be in red, and the dependent clauses in green. The pipe ( | ) will separate the subject and verb from the dependent clause. 

Koine Greek had much more flexibility when it came to sentence word order than English does. Usually, simple natural English puts the subject and verb at the beginning of a sentence. But notice that John 8:58 has the subject and verb at the end of the phrase. What is more, both the NIV and NWT follow suit. The word order in these English translations is not technically bad English. However, it is awkward, and woodenly literal to the original Greek word order. It does not flow like natural English.

Good translations should give a literal translation of the original language. Does that mean they should give an exact, word for word correspondence? No. Often that is not the case. It is primarily the meaning that should be literal. There are different ways of doing that, usually making use of the translation techniques known as formal equivalence and dynamic equivalence. Formal equivalence tries to give as close to a word for word translation as possible, yet still follows the rules of grammar of the target language. A literal word for word English translation sometimes is an accurate way to convey the meaning of the Greek. On the other hand, sometimes a word for word translation can be misleading, or even outright incorrect. Formal equivalent translations will usually put the subject and verb at the beginning of the sentence, even if the Greek has them at the end. Dynamic equivalence is more of a thought for thought translation, and is much freer in expression. This can accurately convey the meaning of the Greek into English without having to strictly follow the word for word order of the original. Both formal and dynamic equivalence are considered literal translations, and dynamic equivalence should not be confused with paraphrasing.

An interlinear translation is an ‘ultra-literal’ translation. Despite many misconceptions, an interlinear translation is not more accurate than a good formal/dynamic equivalence translation. No two languages line up exactly. There is no one-to-one correspondence. The main purpose of interlinear translations is to provide the basic ‘lexical’ meaning for each word. It does not concern itself with grammar and syntax. It is not concerned with providing more than the very basic definition for any given word, no matter how richly that word is used in the source text.

Interlinear translations aren't really translations at all, but just provide a quick gloss under each word. For this reason, interlinear translations are found wanting, and they have been misused by some trying to make theological points. Interlinear translations are often misused when it comes to John 8:58.

But what is more, the popular standard rendering of John 8:58 as is seen in the NIV doesn't complete the process from a strict interlinear translation into a flowing modern English translation. The NIV rendering remains an interlinear translation. To complete the translation process, one thing that should be done is to put it into standard English word order: 

Before Abraham was born, | I am
changes to:
I am before Abraham was born

An English reader thinks in an English way. Even an English speaker who is familiar with Koine Greek may overlook the sense of this verse, since English is hard wired into our brains. The non-flowing, awkward English of the popular rendering of John 8:58, coupled with tradition, lends this verse to misinterpretation. The awkward sentence makes it so that it isn't hard for some to see Jesus as claiming to be God. However, when the translation is put in natural English word order, it can clearly be seen that Jesus was claiming existence, not identity, prior to Abraham's birth. 

"Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he saw it and was glad." Therefore the Jews said to him, "You are not yet fifty years old, and you have seen Abraham?" Jesus said to them, "Most truly I say to you, I am before Abraham was born." - John 8:56-58

The problem with this translation is that it still remains awkward because of the verb tense used. In English, the phrase "I am before Abraham was born" uses simple modern English word order, but we normally wouldn't use the present tense. A quick correction would be "I was before Abraham was born," using the past tense instead of the present tense. Even better would be, "I existed before Abraham was born." To change from "am" to "exist" is fine because in both Greek and English, the verb "to be" also means "exist," and this is clearly Jesus' meaning in this verse.

It is of note that Greek scholar and translator Edgar Goodspeed rendered John 8:58 this way:

"I existed before Abraham was born!" - The New Testament: an American Translation (1923)

One cannot arbitrarily change verb tenses. However, there are good reasons to translate the Greek Present Tense ἐγὼ εἰμί (I am) with another English verb tense in this verse. But in the case of this translation, Goodspeed's choice of using the simple English past tense is not the best way to render the Greek's meaning into English. The issue of English verb tense will be discussed later in Part 2.

Other Verses Similar to John 8:58

There are other verses in the New Testament with similar syntax to John 8:58. When comparing verses, it is always good to find similar expressions from the same author. The next three verses are found in books by the apostle John. The first verse is John 15:27 -

ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς | μετ᾽ ἐμοῦ  ἐστε - John 15:27
ap' arkhes | met' emou este  - Transliteration
from beginning | with me you-are - Interlinear translation

This verse is of interest because most major English translations change the word order of John 15:27 to reflect simple English word order, something that is not done with John 8:58. This is remarkable because the Greek syntax is very similar to that of John 8:58 - for in both verses the subject and verb are at the end of the phrase, have the same verb, and they both begin with dependent clauses that have temporal indicators referring to past time. One difference is that the words "with me" is connected with "you are." This will be in the color yellow. Let's compare the two verses side by side with interlinear translations:

before Abraham came-to-be I am
changes to:
I am before Abraham came-to-be

from beginning |with me you-are
changes to:
you-are with me from beginning

It should be pointed out that the Greek verb ἐστε ("you are") is the same verb as in John 8:58, εἰμι ("I am"). This strengthens the similarities between the two verses. But in John 15:27 a different form of the verb is used - the 2nd person plural ("you are") instead of the 1st person singular in John 8:58 ("I am"). Here is how Young's Literal Translation renders this phrase:

"From the beginning ye are with me." - YLT (1892)

This verse is translated by YLT in the same manner as the traditional rendering of John 8:58 - it keeps the word order of the Greek, and it retains the present tense form of the verb "to be." The word order is not technically bad English, but it is awkward to our English ears. Also, the original Greek Present Tense verb ἐστε ("you are") is translated with the English Present Tense. This too is awkward. However, most translations do not render it this way. The majority of them render it similarly to the NIV:

"You have been with me from the beginning." - NIV

Not only does the NIV switch the word order around, per our suggestion, but it also renders the Greek's Present Tense form of the verb "to be" into the English Present Perfect. In other words, it changes "you are" to "you have been." This is similar to how the NWT translates John 8:58.

Here is another verse, 1 John 3:8 -

ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς ὁ διάβολος ἁμαρτάνει - 1 John 3:8
ap' arkhes | o diabolos amartanei - Transliteration 
from  beginning the devil is-sinning - Interlinear translation

First we will put this verse in natural English word order:

from beginning the devil is-sinning
changes to:
the devil is-sinning from beginning

Here is how the New International Version, which is representative of the major English versions for this verse, renders the phrase:

"The devil has been sinning from the beginning." - NIV

When translating the Greek into English, the NIV changes the word order to reflect natural English, and it also renders the Greek's Present Tense form of the verb ἁμαρτάνει ("is sinning") into the English Present Perfect. That means instead of translating it with the English Present verb "is sinning," it is translated with the English Present Perfect "has been sinning."

Here is another verse from the gospel of John:

τοσούτῳ χρόνῳ | μεθ᾽ ὑμῶν εἰμι | καὶ οὐκ ἔγνωκάς με, Φίλιππε; - John 14:9
tosouto khrono | meth' umon eimi | kai ouk egnokas me, Philippe; - Transliteration 
so-much time | with you I-am | and not you-have-known me, Philip? - Interlinear translation

First let us change the word order:

so-much time | with you I-am | and not you-have-known me, Philip?
changes to:
I-am with you | so-much time | and not you-have-known me, Philip?

This is how the New International Version renders this phrase:

"Don't you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?" - NIV

The NIV changes the original word order to reflect natural English usage. It also translated the Greek Present Tense verb εἰμι (I am) with the English Present Prefect form "I have been."

Just as with John 15:27, John 14:9 uses the same verb as John 8:58: εἰμι - "I am." But this time the 1st person singular form is used, just like in John 8:58. Note that not only do all the major translations change the original word order to reflect common usage, but they also render the Greek verb εἰμι ("I am") the same way the NWT does in John 8:58 - "I have been." 

Now we will look at one last verse, this time from another author, Luke -

τοσαῦτα ἔτη | δουλεύω σοι - Luke 15:29
tosauta ete | douleuo soi - Transliteration
so-many years I-am-slaving for-you - Interlinear translation

Let us change the word order:

so-many years I-am-slaving for-you
changes to:
I-am-slaving for-you so-many years

This is how the New International Version renders this phrase:

"All these years I've been slaving for you." - NIV

This time the NIV chooses not to re-arrange the word order. In this instance, the English isn't so awkward, and the original word order can be retained. Most major English translations retain the original word order in this verse. Of the major English Bibles, the Holman Christian Standard Bible does go ahead and change the word order: "I have been slaving many years for you." - HCSB (2003). However, most of the translations change the Greek Present Tense verb "I am serving" to "I have been serving," with the exception of the King James Version and Young's Literal Translation.

Of all of these verses that we have compared, the popular English translations change the original Greek word order to reflect natural English usage, except in the case of Luke 15:29. In the Greek, all of these verses start with a dependent clause with some kind of temporal indicator referring to past time, followed by the main subject and verb. This matches the syntax of John 8:58. Also significant is that these verses have Greek Present Tense forms which are translated into English in the Present Prefect ("is/am" is changed to "has/have been"). Why is that? This will be discussed in Part 2.

Go to Part 2.

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